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Nation: Life Among the Talmadges

5 minute read

An untidy divorce discloses an unusual road to riches

He gets up at 4 a.m., puts on his jogging clothes and runs two miles near his apartment in northwest Washington. Then he eats breakfast and heads for his office on Capitol Hill. He returns home as soon as the Senate adjourns, watches TV and is in bed by 8:30. Georgia Senator Herman Talmadge, 64, is a lonely and troubled man these days, under heavy pressure from investigations into his tangled finances by the Senate Ethics Committee and the Internal Revenue Service.

His problems stem mostly from legal battles with his former wife Betty, 54, who lives at Lovejoy, the 1,400-acre family plantation southeast of Atlanta, where she runs a meat brokerage business. For years it seemed they had a perfect political marriage. But he drank, she says, and the marriage deteriorated. She came down with the Washington-wife blues and started seeing a psychiatrist. One evening in 1976, shortly after hog-killing time, Betty Talmadge suddenly recovered. While watching the news on TV at Lovejoy, she discovered that the Senator had filed for divorce. She went to the next room, where Talmadge was sitting, and said: “When are you moving out?”

But political divorces can be messy, Talmadge soon learned, as have others —former Governor Marvin Mandel of Maryland, Governor George Wallace of Alabama and Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts.* Last August, Talmadge revealed in a deposition that it had long been his practice to accept pocket money, clothing and lodging from friends. In fact, he had written only one check for cash in six years. Says he: “Wherever I go, people entertain me, lodge me, give me small amounts of money. My out-of-pocket expenses come from donations friends give me—$5, a $10 bill, sometimes $15 or $20.” The Senate Ethics Committee is investigating the propriety of his way of meeting living expenses.

The divorce case, meanwhile, focused on whether Talmadge or his wife was entitled to $756,000 from a land deal. According to his deposition, the Senator in 1967 bought a one-eighth share in Terminal Facilities, a land syndicate, and placed the stock in his wife’s name. She now claims that it was an outright gift and that she paid capital gains tax on the profits when the shares were sold in 1972. But he insists that the stock was only hers to hold in trust, even though in an answer to one of Betty’s lawyer’s written questions, he referred to it as a “gift.” Asked a lawyer for his wife: “That’s pretty concise, isn’t it, Senator?” Replied Talmadge: “A little too concise.” Talmadge quickly amended his answer.

Last week the Georgia supreme court ruled that the money belongs to Talmadge. But he is caught in a dilemma: if the stock was a gift to his wife, he should have paid a federal gift tax; if the stock was only being held in trust, he should have reported it in his annual financial statement to the Senate. He did neither.

But the issue of who owns the shares is secondary to the much more revealing questions of how Talmadge got involved in the land acquisition and what then happened to it. The deal originated in 1967, when an Atlanta businessman invited Talmadge to join in the purchase of 1,200 acres in Cobb County, Ga., near the proposed Interstate 75. The businessman wrote that he was “reliably informed there will be an interchange” on part of the property, information not yet made public. Talmadge put up $119,800. Two years later, then State Highway Director Jim Gillis, a political crony of Talmadge’s, officially recommended that the interchange be built on that site. In 1972 Terminal Facilities sold the property to land developers for $12,500 an acre, almost six times the original purchase price of five years before. In addition, the Senator’s son acted as broker and received a $100,000 commission from the sellers.

Nor was this the only time Talmadge has been involved with friends in profitable land dealings. In 1966 the Senator asked the Federal Highway Administration to approve construction of an interchange on Interstate 75 near property that had been acquired by business associates in rural Henry County, Ga. The FHA agreed, even though there was to be another interchange less than two miles away.

Talmadge’s sworn deposition discloses that he gave his wife about $15,000 worth of securities that do not appear as gifts in his tax returns. The IRS is investigating the matter. There are also problems with a special account that Talmadge kept to handle expenses related to his Senate duties:

— He took $26,912 from the account for his own use in 1975, claiming it was for campaign expenses he had paid out of pocket, but did not report these expenses until last week.

— He failed to pay federal income taxes on $5,907 of income kept in the account in 1976.

— He deposited in the account between 1973 and 1976 $83,363 in expense reimbursements from the Senate, $25,248 more than documented expenditures.

While her lawyers are forcing out new disclosures about her husband’s finances, Betty Talmadge is doing her best to return to Washington. The indefatigable meat broker, who recently wrote a book called How to Cook a Pig and Other Back-to-the-Farm Recipes, is running for Congress. Says Betty: “There’s not much difference between selling a ham and selling a political idea.” Two weeks ago she gave a “pig pickin’ and politician’ benefit” at Lovejoy plantation to help her campaign. But the turnout was poor. Many of her friends are still friends of Herman’s—no matter what has been disclosed about him—and stayed home. ∙

* The Brookes’ divorce became final this month after a bitter two-year court fight.

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